When sitting down to discuss equine nutrition with Dr. Randy Raub, PhD, it’s clear he knows the practical side of feeding horses. In many barns, feeding programs depend on horse numbers, lifestage, and workload, which can vary greatly. According to Randy, the foundation of a quality equine nutrition program is often overlooked and he shared how to start to improve your feeding program so your horses can reach peak performance.
Q1: How to plan your feeding program?
So we asked Randy, where do we start? Randy Raub was happy to dive in,“Horses are naturally grazers and need access to food often throughout the day. So, start your feeding program on your available hay and forage,” Raub said. “You need to understand the quality and approximate nutritional value your hay and pasture is providing , how much pasture and/or hay your horse is consuming in a day, and then how much work the horse will do as well. Then, you can add in a concentrate feed or supplement to provide your horse the nutrients needed to perform. Keep in mind — small meals throughout the day are key to your horses health and well being.”
Start with your Hay
“In any feeding program — no matter where you are — it should always always start with addressing your hay,” says Raub. He then explained there are many different types of hay depending on location, such as alfalfa, timothy, orchard grass, coastal bermuda, and so on. These different types of hay each carry different nutritional values. Also the feed quality of a specific hay can vary greatly depending on soil quality and forage maturity when harvested. For example, grass hay out of Ohio may not have the same nutritional value as grass hay from Colorado.”
“Along with the soil and forage maturity, hay storage is also a key factor. Is the hay sitting in a barn covered or exposed to the elements? Storage plays an important part in how hay holds its nutritional value and thus determining other needed feeds/supplements,” Raub states.
Evaluating Hay Quality
You start by visually appraising the hay. Look at the stem to leaf ratio (the more leaves the better), bright green color, a fresh aroma, and an absence of dust, mold, and foreign material. Just know, visual appraisal is not always as accurate as you think. Your horse may not look or perform up to your expectations, indicating your horse is not receiving the nutrients he needs. So, a professional analysis of your hay is helpful to develop the appropriate feeding program.
Q2: Now that we addressed how to judge your hay, how do we figure out its nutritional value?
“Nutritionists often say, ‘did you get your hay evaluated?’ In other words, when you are buying enough hay for a year or longer — it’s recommended that you get the hay tested for its nutritional value, which takes the guessing game out of it. You actually know the nutrients the haying is supplying your horse. If you are buying your hay a month or two at a time, you’d be testing it every time you picked up a load, which is not as practical! And in some cases, particularly during droughts, you are just happy to be able to buy some hay regardless of the nutritional value.”
“If you get your hay tested, it helps you evaluate how you should be feeding your horse and if you need to supplement with a concentrate or other feed type. Most folks blame a drop in their horse’s weight or change in condition on the feed. When it is really the quality of hay, forage or pasture that has changed. The hay analysis will give you a starting point of where to go nutritionally to keep your horse performing,” advises Raub.
Tips on how to take a samples for hay analysis:
Using a hay corer/probe, collect samples from 10-20% of the bales in a single load. Combine the samples and thoroughly mix them together. Grab two separate samples from the mixed samples, place each in a separate labeled (hay source, type, cutting, date bailed and date sampled) plastic bag and ship both samples off for analysis.
Don’t sample just one bale, but take random samples from throughout the load.
Don’t have your own hay probe? You can work with your local feed store to hook you up with a nutritionist to come out and sample your hay for you. Or contact your local extension specialist office, they may have a hay probe you can borrow . Then you will have an accurate analysis of your hay’s nutritional value and an idea of how much hay to feed and if additional concentrate is needed.
Q3: Why is a scoop, not just a scoop or an accurate measurement on how much grain or feed our horses should get?
“A scoop is not just a scoop – and everyone is going to use a scoop. You need to feed your horse the correct amount of grain or concentrate that matches your horse’s workload. Not just the amount of concentrate, but the correct weight. And a sweet feed compared to a pellet compared to an extruded feed – all weigh different amounts and have different volume levels when “in a scoop”. It is worth the investment for a small postal scale or even a hanging scale (like one for a suitcase or a fish) and put the scoop in a baggie or a plastic netting and measure it that way. Take the time to make that feed measurement on your scoop and mark it with a line. It can mean so much to your horse’s nutritional needs and management, especially when you have to explain that to your vet or nutritionist,” states Raub.
Q4: How should we evaluate the percentage % numbers on a bag of feed, or as you call it, concentrate?
“There are usually three percentages you see on the bag: protein, fat, and fiber. Protein fuels your horse with calories when they are at work and helps them grow and develop. The best form of pure protein for your horse is alfalfa. For example, if you have a performance horse and you are feeding good, straight alfalfa, you really don’t need to feed a concentrate with more than 12% protein. Then you have fat, which is pure calories and fat. For a working horse I’d say you want nothing less than 8-10% fat. You have to have calories to work! Then, fiber is probably the most misleading information on the tag. It really depends on the fiber source. Good ones are soy hulls and beet pulp (these have 2x times the energy value as a good quality grass hay). A less ideal fiber source for a horse working hard is ground timothy which can be found in textured feed. It’s not bad, but it’s essentially just ground up hay.”
“Additionally, if you have a senior horse, they need a relatively low digestible fiber in there to help them keep weight on like rice hulls. They provide an important component to a senior horse that can no longer eat hay, as many don’t have a lot of teeth left. Senior feeds are trying to emulate a forage type base thus allowing senior horse to thrive. It’s the single best thing that’s extended the life of senior horses.”
Other additives in concentrate that you should look for are lysine at 0.7% and methionine with at least 0.4%. A lot of people worry about too many carbohydrates for the performance horse. Our Sentinel Line fits these horses perfectly, as well as a wide range of other horses at different life stages, and what our team of nutritionists formulated our products to meet horses’ specific dietary needs,” concludes Raub.
For more information answered by our Sentinel Nutrition Team click here!